Business leaders push for Chicago, Detroit flights to return to Evansville
It’s been more than a year since Evansville Regional Airport lost flight service to and from Chicago and Detroit, but business and community leaders are pushing to restore the northern routes that they say are key to the region’s growth and economy.
Ronald Romain, executive chairman of United Cos., said financial support from the Evansville Regional Business Committee and the Indiana Economic Development Corp. is allowing the community to return to the airlines and plead its case.
“Hopefully, within another 30 or 60 days, we’ll have some answers because we did receive some encouraging signals that the airlines were kind of back looking at markets,” Romain told Inside INdiana Business.
The Indiana Legislature last month approved an additional $5 million per year over the next two years to provide the IEDC and the state’s airports the ability to work with airlines to expand service throughout the United States and around the world, said Mark Wasky, senior vice president for community affairs at IEDC.
He said Indiana’s regional and international airports have recovered from the pandemic more quickly than their Midwest peers.
“And as airlines build back their networks while confronting aircraft and staffing challenges, funding for flights is increasingly important in ensuring the value proposition of serving Indiana is stronger than other places around the country,” Wasky said.
That’s important for southwest Indiana and the global companies in the region, which include plastics processor Berry Global, automaker Toyota and manufacturer Koch Enterprises, among others. The region once had as many as seven daily flights between Chicago and Evansville serviced by American and United airlines.
In January 2022, however, United Airlines stopped flight service between Evansville and Chicago, a move it blamed on limited resources and staffing. Two months later, American Airlines followed suit, pausing its flights between Evansville and Chicago. Meanwhile, Delta Airlines halted service between Evansville and Detroit.
The community then offered financial incentives—essentially supplements for the routes—to the airlines to try to bring the flights back and ensure they would be profitable. But that wasn’t enough to persuade the airlines to return.
Now, the city is making another attempt to attract interest.
‘All hands on deck’
Today, Evansville is served by Allegiant, American and Delta airlines, but all the routes fly south. Allegiant flies to Destin and Orlando, Florida. American flies to Dallas-Fort Worth and Charlotte, North Carolina. Delta flies to Atlanta.
Evansville Mayor Lloyd Winnecke said there’s been an all-hands-on-deck effort to restore service traveling north.
“The business community is working on it. Our airport team and a consultant are working on it. The city administration is working on it. The state administration is working on it. So it’s not for a lack of trying or a lack of communication. It’s just a really difficult position and time for airlines,” said Winnecke.
Romain said Evansville is doing everything it can to be “at the top of list” when airlines began expanding their routes again. But he and other local leaders say they’ve been told a shortage of pilots and other staffing is delaying the return of Chicago and Detroit flights to Evansville.
“As we understand the process, the airlines are building their pipeline of pilots. And as they get more pilots, more flights that have been discontinued will be restored,” Winnecke said. “American has communicated to us that they want to return service to Chicago from Evansville.”
Evansville airport leaders also maintain airline staffing issues are to blame for the lost connections to Chicago and Detroit.
“We continue working with state and local officials and our airline partners to resume service as pilot supply improves,” Nate Hahn, executive director of Evansville Regional Airport, said in a statement.
United didn’t respond to Inside INdiana Business’s request for comment, and Delta deferred to the Regional Airline Association, which also didn’t respond. However, American acknowledged the staffing problem.
“Regional flying across the industry has been dramatically reduced due to a captain shortage. American has been—and will continue to be—aggressive in tackling the regional pilot constraints to return to higher levels of aircraft utilization,” Jay Singh, a spokesperson for American, said in a statement.
Mike Boyd, an aviation management consultant with Boyd Group International Inc., put the blame elsewhere: “The real issue is there’s an airplane shortage,” Boyd said.
Boyd said the regional jets that traveled between Evansville and northern destinations are going out of commission, which is causing a problem for regional airports like the one in Evansville.
“All of the Delta flights EVV-Detroit were with 50-seat jets. All of United’s EVV-ORD flights were 50-seat jets. Almost all of AA EVV-ORD flights were 50-seat jets. Delta is dumping all 50-seaters this year. United intends the same. American is slower, but plan on it,” Boyd said.
Without 50-seat planes, Evansville would need to raise its financial bar to support 76-seat planes with United and Delta and 65- to 76-seat planes with American. However, Boyd said there’s not enough traffic to justify the cost of the upgrade.
“EVV itself cannot generate enough passengers to support service to either Chicago or Detroit,” he said. “That’s what a lot of communities are up against. Because now the cost of providing service to the hub—and it’s a hub at Detroit and it’s a hub at Chicago—that gives you access to the world, the cost of providing that has gone up materially, and you can’t do anything else about it.”
The reality, according to Boyd, is the airline industry no longer has the economics to serve smaller communities, and areas like Evansville will have to take drastic measures to restore these flights.
“The community could offer AA, UA, DL a locally paid subsidy to fly the markets, but we are talking millions to get them across the table,” Boyd said.
An offer the airlines can’t refuse may be just what the business community has planned.
“We’re willing to put our money where our mouth is. We’re screaming that we’ve got a problem, but we’re also willing to support—and the state of Indiana is willing to support—efforts to bring service back to the third largest city in the state of Indiana,” Romain said.
The IEDC affirmed flight connections to the north are essential for both business and leisure.
“Nonstop connectivity to critical business markets is vital for the state’s economic development efforts, and an important quality of life asset that helps drive population and economic growth,” Wasky said.
Business leaders like Romain and Robert Koch, chairman of Koch Enterprises Inc., have been vocal about the importance of Chicago and Detroit flights for their companies and the Evansville area.
“We have offices in Detroit. The lack of a flight up there is terribly inconvenient. We’re having people drive up there now instead of fly,” Koch said.
Romain said the impact of losing these flights is significant for a city that’s home to five Fortune 1000 businesses and several large corporation operations centers.
“We’ve got substantial businesses in this region, and they can’t get people to and from their offices, their operation center, or, in some instances, their headquarters. Old National Bank is a $45 billion company headquartered in Evansville. That’s a pretty serious problem,” Romain said.
The issue also goes beyond Chicago and Detroit. Without the flights, the Evansville business community has fewer connections for global travel.
“Chicago is a really good meeting place to meet some international flights. Right now, we go to Dallas to go to London, which seems the wrong way to go first. It adds another hour or two to the flight,” Koch said.
Tara Barney, CEO of the Evansville Regional Economic Partnership, mentioned the international complication in a recent interview with Inside INdiana Business.
“So much of our business relies on getting to Chicago or the Detroit market, not just to do business there but to connect globally. It is a big challenge for us. It’s one that we’re all over. We are confident that there’s a good story coming. But we don’t have it quite penciled into our calendars yet,” Barney said.